Island Refuges: How Australia and New Zealand could cooperate to protect humanity from catastrophic biological threats and nuclear winter

Image source: Google Maps

Key Points

  • Biological threats far worse than Covid-19 are possible, even likely.
  • Governments should consider worst case scenarios and contingencies.
  • Risks should be catalogued and published in a form that expresses expected utility loss (probability x impact).
  • In an existence threatening scenario, Australia and New Zealand are the island refuges most suited to seal borders to safeguard humanity.
  • Many practical steps can be taken to ensure that island refuges are a viable option of last resort if a catastrophic biothreat arises.
  • Island refuges in some geographic locations might offer additional resilience against nuclear winter.

It’s no longer surprising news that COVID-19 may be a warning shot that provides humanity the chance and the motivation to address some of the many catastrophic global risks. Our latest research paper explains the rationale and practicalities of island refuges as mitigation.

Biological Threats

Pandemic viruses with high case fatality could potentially infect a majority of the population. Deliberate biological events (DBEs) have occurred before (Millet & Snyder-Beattie, 2017a), will likely occur again, and could pose catastrophic or existential threat to humans. With rapidly advancing biotechnology it is conceivable that an engineered virus might combine features of very high transmissibility and very high case fatality. Multiple engineered viruses could conceivably be deployed simulataneously to achieve close to 100% fatality risk in human populations (Turchin & Denkenberger, 2018). Finally, new technologies such as artificial intelligence could amplify biothreats in many ways (O’Brien & Nelson, 2020).

The threat of a DBE could be partly driven by a search for ‘winter safe’ deterrence (Baum, 2015), or for cheaper alternatives (relative to nuclear weapon arsenals) to nuclear mutually assured destruction. These risks are amplified because the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has no verification system (Dando, 2016), and has been violated in the past (Gronvall, 2018). It would only take one unanticipated or accidental event for a bioweapon (or laboratory accident) to become a catastrophic threat.

These risks should ideally be expressed by governments in terms of expected utility loss (ie probability x impact). For example, hypothetically:

  • A 20% probability per annum of an Ebola outbreak that kills 10,000 people, for which the expected utility loss is 2,000 deaths per annum.
  • A 1% probability per annum of a catastrophic biological attack that kills 20,000,000 people, for which the expected utility loss is 200,000 deaths per annum.

Clearly the second threat would be the larger risk and at least some analysis and policy resources should be tasked with better understanding risks like it and how to mitigate them.

Resources could be allocated to risk mitigation in proportion to the expected utility loss, keeping in mind that some mitigation measures will address multiple risks.

We need options of last resort

No preventive or resilience strategy is foolproof. An anthropogenic pandemic of existential magnitude is probably more likely than a naturally occurring one, and the world ought to pursue technologies that ensure safety.

However, last lines of defense may be required, such as refuges. If an island nation closed its borders quickly enough, allowing no one at all in, it could keep the threat at bay, thereby protectively sequestering its population and preserving technological know-how.

Island Refuges

Image source: iStock

Many islands might unintentionally act as refuges where humanity survives, such as North Sentinel Island which harbours a population that vigorously rejects outsiders. However, many such islands do not harbour the materials and know-how to preserve a technologically flourishing civilisation.

Our new research paper poses the question, ‘which islands are most suited to safeguard a population of humans in order that a technologically flourishing global civilisation might be restored after a catastrophic pandemic?’

We explore this question in depth and determine it is Australia, New Zealand and Iceland, but that none of these three islands is yet fully prepared to play such a role in protecting human existence as we know it. Given Australia and New Zealand’s proximity and close relationship there is potential to cooperate on such a project, especially given there is redundancy with four potential island refuges (Australian mainland, Tasmania, North Island and South Island of New Zealand).

COVID-19 taught us that pandemics may reach many remote islands only after some delay, giving such islands a chance to successfully close their borders and keep the disease out. We also know that there were many disruptions to trade and that such disruptions would only be worse in a more severe pandemic. Disruption could be total in a catastrophic situation.

Preparations should be a mixture of specific anticipatory actions, and more generalist responses for all kinds of scenarios.

Refuge preparations

In order to ensure that an island can survive intact through the catastrophe a number of aspects of self-sufficiency and security need to be developed ahead of time. For example:

  • early warning systems
  • food security
  • energy security
  • essential services
  • health security
  • disaster resilience
  • psychological resilience
  • overcoming legal barriers.

Our research paper provides a table of additional possible preparations in the Supporting Material.

Governments should articulate these risks, and possible mitigation measures, crowdsource additional strategies, and begin to evaluate the rationale and priority of various preparations.

Effective military and/or police capability may be needed to repel those determined to try to reach the refuge (who might bring disease with them). This is a weakness many small islands face, however military technology is rapidly becoming cheaper, smaller, more versatile, and autonomous. Still, it would be more ideal for the global community to discuss and recognise refuges ahead of time, and coordinate, perhaps via a treaty or UN resolution, to leave the refuge island(s) alone should a catastrophic pandemic arise. The future of humanity could depend on it.  

Nuclear winter

Robbie Norman: Getty Images

Finally, some refuges might help mitigate nuclear winter. The threat of nuclear war persists. A small-scale war between India and Pakistan could have dramatic implications for global agricultural productivity threatening mass starvation (Toon et al., 2019). A limited nuclear war (<1% of the world’s arsenal) could disrupt the climate for 5-10 years, especially above latitude 30 degrees north (Jagermeyr et al., 2020). A larger nuclear war between the US and Russia could lead to below freezing summer temperatures over much of the northern hemisphere (Coupe, Bardeen, Robock, & Toon, 2020). Large scale nuclear war could be catastrophic with the possibility of human extinction, although there would likely be some survivors notably ‘in Australia and New Zealand’ (Robock, 2010). Supervolcanic or asteroid/comet impact winter may have similar effects (Rampino, 2011; Vellekoop et al., 2014), perhaps, too, a geoengineering catastrophe (Dykema, Keith, Anderson, & Weisenstein, 2014).

This means that it might be sensible for Australia and New Zealand to also consider what might mitigate nuclear winter situations as well. There may be some substantive overlap in resilience preparations for nuclear war and for catastrophic biological risks. This is because we can confront nuclear winter by increasing humanity’s resilience to it (Baum, 2016). In the context of a global nuclear war, island refuge status might be imposed involuntarily.

Island nations such as New Zealand could: stockpile food (including alternative sources) (Martinez et al., 2020), water, sunscreen, fuel, and medical supplies; shielding against UV radiation; and secure telecommunications against electromagnetic pulses or loss of cloud connectivity (Baum, 2016).

The reverse of winter scenarios, extreme global warming, is another catastrophic scenario (albeit probably over a longer timeframe), and if the process is reversible then Iceland could potentially harbour a population safely until the threat has passed.

Amplifying risk factors

There are many other considerations that might help or hinder the functioning of a refuge. The 2021 US Intelligence Global Trends Report, warns of the potential fragmentation of societies and the global order, with the possibility of international trade disruption, groups of countries creating online enclaves, and eroded civic cohesion. This is important because social factors such as the degree of societal ‘tightness’ or ‘looseness’ have been correlated with better and worse Covid-19 outcomes. Mechanistic modelling shows how tightness arises in high threat environments because it’s an advantage. Tight countries do better in threat situations and this only enhances the concerns raised in the US intelligence report. It seems some kinds of social structures and interactions are worth nurturing and other trends must be overcome.

Government action is needed

Governments should invest in teams analysing these very large scale threats and trying to determine with more certainty the expected utility loss. This would allow them to publish risk registers, invite crowd-sourced (public sector, business, civil society) input about mitigation strategies, and to rationally prioritise investment in the context of competing demands. Some necessary preparations might be intergenerational human resilience projects.

Risk and Resilience in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Photo credit: Edge2Edge Media

New Zealand should up its game in risk identification, analysis, and prevention. This is the key message from former GNS principal scientist Kelvin Berryman when discussing a new risks report. He told the Listener, ‘New Zealand is still creating its own disasters waiting to happen.’

The risks report in question was published in April 2021 by former Chief Science Advisor Peter Gluckman and co-author Anne Bardsley. It details New Zealand’s need to address ‘uncertain but inevitable’ risks. The report has garnered media attention such as RadioNZ’s coverage here, and the feature in the Listener available here (paywalled).

The general thrust of ‘Uncertain but Inevitable’ is that governments are responsible for keeping people safe, the New Zealand government has developed a National Risk Register, which allegedly includes maximum credible threats, however this is kept secret when it ought to be public, and that much more institutional transparency and accountability of risk assessment are needed. There should be an apolitical focus on high-impact risks that overcomes three particular failures: (1) risk identification, assessment and communication, (2) human factors (especially issues of cognitive biases), and (3) policy/political dimensions.

I certainly applaud the efforts to improve the scale, scope and transparency of risk analysis in New Zealand. A few additional points warrant mention:

Firstly, it is very notable that the former Chief Science Advisor is critiquing the National Risk Register, one supposes that he was privy to at least some of its contents in his former official capacity, and if he feels the register and/or risk processes surrounding it in Aotearoa/New Zealand are inadequate then we should certainly take note.

Second, the focus on ‘uncertain but inevitable’ risks is surely too narrow. The Listener piece  states that a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said, ‘New Zealand had a good track record of identifying and managing risks and was committed to ensuring public discussion about nationally significant risks.’ However, New Zealand’s approach to risks has traditionally been a reactive one. Even forward-looking endeavours like EQC are designed for the aftermath. A track record, even a good one, is not necessarily good for unprecedented and unexpected risks. Notably, our ‘successes’ with Covid-19, the Christchurch earthquake and so on, were with regard to risks that were neither unprecedented, nor unexpected. What about emerging risks such as biological engineering, misaligned artificial intelligence, solar geoengineering, rising digital totalitarianism, newly discovered risks from space, and the established but unaddressed risks of nuclear, volcanic and asteroid/comet induced winters, let alone technological risks yet to be identified.

Thirdly, the Listener reported that the authors of ‘Uncertain but Inevitable’ believe it would be theoretically possible to have an all-encompassing risk register, however, they felt that such a register could overwhelm its audience, or result in generic or vague risks. I would counter this point by saying that the point of a risk register is to formalise analysis, to be sure the assessment is systematic and comprehensive. But the register needs to record dimensions beyond the traditional coarse ‘likelihood’ and ‘magnitude’ categories. By adding best probability estimates, best impact on life-years and the economy estimates, considerations of tractability, lists of possible interventions and best estimates of cost-effectiveness (all constantly updated as new information comes to hand), then risks can be ranked by expected annual utility loss. A risk budget can be determined, and this budget allocated to the highest priority risks. It may be that the most important risks are not those that we traditionally pour investment into, such as road safety or flood banks, but rather risks such as the next Covid-19 or a nuclear winter. That remains to be determined by the process just outlined. The register would not be overwhelming if we start by addressing the Top 10 risks.

Fourthly, Berryman is cited in the Listener article as saying that we need more and better science communication. There is plenty of knowledge and research about risks, but this doesn’t always find its way into public policy. This is something I completely agree with and at Adapt Research we hope to initiate a New Zealand Human Futures Forum (currently a funding application is under consideration), which would focus on nurturing discussion and information sharing about global catastrophic and existential threats in a way that is relevant to Aotearoa/New Zealand. This risk category is notably absent from almost all risk policy work. We have previously noted this omission at the level of the UN, and locally in the domains of artificial intelligence and catastrophic biological threats. And yet, when the approach taken in point three above is deployed, such risks may be the most rational ones to address.